By: E&P Staff
President George W. Bush returned to Washington, D.C. this afternoon from his vacation in Texas, with Air Force One flying over the Gulf Coast for a look at the massive hurricane damage.
Reporters on board also got a glimpse, and afterward asked Press Secretary Scott McClellan to describe the reaction of the president, who has been accused by some of responding too slowly to the crisis. Here is the transcript:
MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, just to update you on the flyover. He was — you’ll have the still photos that will go out from the stills that were up there, you’ll have pictures of him. But he was sitting up in the — on the left side of the plane, the front part there, where the Secret Service detail usually sits, and looking out at all the hurricane damage along the Gulf coast region.
He spent about 35 minutes there, in that seat. Some White House staff joined him at different parts of it, from Karl Rove to J.D. Crouch, to myself. One of the Air Force pilots came down and was telling them where — which cities and communities we were passing over.
It started with, as you all saw, with New Orleans. And we can see — and the President was pointing out some of the different structures within the town, like the Superdome. You could see the skin of the roof peeled back from the storm. In different parts we saw some helicopters that I guess were involved in some of the search and rescue efforts off in the distance.
Then we saw a lot of the real devastation after we passed some of that downtown area. Even in the downtown area you could see the highways where they just disappeared into the water. And then we got into some of the neighborhoods that were really devastated, and you could see the water all the way up to the roofs.
The President, when we were passing over that part of New Orleans, said, “It’s devastating, it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.” And he pointed out some of the neighborhoods that I just mentioned, and pointed out — there’s a shopping mall, I think it was, we were trying to figure out what it was, and we thought it was a shopping mall that was under a lot of water.
Q “It’s devastating, it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. And then we came up on — after we passed New Orleans, and I think we passed Slidell, then it wasn’t too far after that when we were in Mississippi that we came upon communities that — where the houses were just totally destroyed. The President made a comment saying, it’s totally wiped out, when he looked down at this one community, where you can see the homes that were just in pieces.
Q In Mississippi, right?
MR. McCLELLAN: Mississippi, that’s correct. There was a bridge that had been wiped out. The President pointed out this one church that was still standing, but all the homes around it there were completely wiped out. There’s a causeway we saw that was in pieces that the President pointed out….
Q When he was governor of Texas, did he ever see anything like this? Has he ever —
MR. McCLELLAN: He did. I wasn’t working for him at the time, but I know he certainly has toured damage. I don’t know, when you say, “anything like this,” I don’t know about this, because as I said earlier, this is becoming clear to everybody that it could be the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. Just how widespread the damage is and the devastation, we just don’t know about how widespread the loss of life was.
Q Was he surprised by anything in particular about the scope of it?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think when we were looking at it, it was more the President and staff kind of pointing out different communities or neighborhoods, structures, as I mentioned. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation going on. I think it was very sobering to see from the air, and I think at some points you’re just kind of shaking your head in disbelief to see the destruction that has been done by this hurricane.
All right. I’ll check on the —
Q Scott, can you say if the President requested this fly-over?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President certainly wanted to do it. I think that it had been discussed among the staff with the President, but the President certainly wanted to do it, as long as we weren’t going to be disruptive of what was going on in the region.